Common Milkweed: Uses and Natural Remedies

Learn About Milkweed—an Important Native Plant!

By George and Becky Lohmiller
May 19, 2020
Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed
Seney National Wildlife Refuge

Common milkweed has a long history as a natural remedy—and has many other uses, too! Plus, milkweed is the food of our beautiful monarch butterflies. Learn about this surprisingly useful native plant.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the best known of the 100 or so milkweed species native to North America. The name “common” fits the plant well because when not in bloom, it goes pretty much unnoticed, growing humbly along roadsides, in fields, and in wastelands.

Natural Remedies with Milkweed

Once upon a time, milkweed was commonly used in a number of natural remedies:

  • Native Americans taught early European settlers how to properly cook milkweed so that it could be safely eaten. (See note below.)
  • The milky white sap was applied topically to remove warts, and the roots were chewed to cure dysentery.
  • Infusions of the roots and leaves were taken to suppress coughs and used to treat typhus fever and asthma.

Note: Today, experienced foragers may enjoy eating young milkweed sprouts, which resemble asparagus, but ONLY if they are properly identified (there are poisonous lookalikes, such as dogbane) and properly prepared (boiled). Some common milkweed plants (A. syriaca) are mild-tasting, while others are bitter (in which case, avoid entirely or boil in several changes of water). If you are new to foraging, have an expert help you identify, gather, and prepare the plant properly before eating. As with any herb, take only a small amount at first, to be sure that you don’t have an adverse reaction.

Find out about other helpful natural remedies.

Caution: Do not get milkweed sap in your eyes (such as rubbing your eyes after touching the sap); wash your hands thoroughly after handling the plant. Also, some people may develop an allergic reaction when the sap touches the skin.

Milkweed flowers. Photo by Lmmahood/Wikimedia Commons.
Milkweed flowers. Photo by Lmmahood/Wikimedia Commons.

Is Milkweed Poisonous?

Beneath its dull, gray-green exterior, milkweed is slightly toxic.

  • Inside the plant is a sticky white sap that contains a mild poison; its bitter taste warns away many of the animals and insects that try to eat its tender leaves—including humans.
  • Certain insects, including monarch butterfly caterpillars, are immune to the toxin. By feeding almost exclusively on milkweed leaves, they are able to accumulate enough of the poison in their bodies to make them distasteful to predators which means that milkweed is a great plant for butterflies.

The nectar in all milkweed flowers provides valuable food for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Butterflies don’t only need nectar, but also need food at the caterpillar stage. The leaves of milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) are the ONLY food that monarch caterpillars can eat! And monarch butterflies need milkweed to lay their eggs. With shifting land management practices and pesticide use, we have lost much milkweed from the landscape. This has led to a 90% decline in the number of eastern monarchs in a just single decade.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Fun Facts About Common Milkweed

  • The stems’ tough, stringy fibers were twisted into strong twine and rope, or woven into coarse fabric.
  • Inside milkweed’s rough seed pods is another wonderful surprise: The fluffy white floss, attached to milkweed’s flat brown seeds, could be used to stuff pillows, mattresses, and quilts, and was carried as tinder to start fires.

milkweed-seed-pod-uses.jpg

  • During World War II, the regular material used to stuff life jackets was in short supply, so milkweed floss was called for as a substitute—it is about six times more buoyant than cork!
  • Over the years, researchers have investigated growing milkweed for paper-making, textiles, and lubricants, and as a substitute for fossil fuels and rubber. Although these experiments were found economically unfeasible at the time, perhaps they should be revisited, given the rising costs of fuel and other materials.
  • In current research, a chemical extracted from the seed is being tested as a pesticide for nematodes.

We doubt if this surprisingly useful plant will run out of surprises anytime soon! Common milkweed seeds grow well in just average soil. Scratch milkweed seeds directly into the soil in the fall. The following summer, seedlings will emerge.

See our full list of plants that attract butterflies.

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Reader Comments

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Milkweed toxic

I read your article and unfortunately it is derived from incorrect information as common milkweed, even eaten raw, is not bitter or toxic. The information you received was passed down from a misidentified dogbane by Euell Gibbons back in 1962 and apparently that information “stuck”.

Milkweed Toxicity

The Editors's picture

Thank you for your feedback! All readily available sources that we could find claim that milkweed is indeed mildly toxic to livestock and humans due to the presence of cardenolides. Here are a few:

However, if you could provide a link to sources stating otherwise, we would be happy to read more about it!

Milkweed poisonous to cattle

South Central Indiana: I was interested in growing milkweed in our backyard, which borders a local farmer's field. When I mentioned the idea to our neighbor (to promote monarch butterflies), he informed me that the plant is deadly poisonous to cattle, and he would prefer that I NOT plant any, since it could easily spread to his field and be eaten by his cattle! (Just passing along the information in the interest of keeping peaceful relations with neighbors who raise cattle!) Thank you for the article - I hope others can grow milkweed & find it useful.

Milkweed

The common milkweed plant is the easiest to grow. Some of the others varieties I have tried from nurseries do not survive. Monarchs love milkweed and we are always delighted to see the caterpillars. We are always happy to share the seed pods in the fall, too.

Milkweed commercially

Since 2011 here in Quebec, Francois Simard has explored using milkweed as insulating material to replace down in winter wear. His prototypes have been tested on Mt. Everest with great success.
It is light and efficient. Furthermore, it is hydrophobic. This quality is being explored as systems to clean up oil spills as milkweed silk absorbs oil readily. These Quebec initiatives have prompted many farmers here to actually grow milkweed as a main crop. Good for all and Monarchs,

milkweed cooking water

Since you are going to cook and change water several times to rid the meal of the sticky white poison in the sap, and bugs don't eat the plant because they kill the bugs....could you use the "wash" water as a bug killer for organic gardening? Spray it on your plants to kill bugs that you are competing with for your food? Maybe??

BEWARE OF MAIL ORDER MILKWEED!!!

I've recently become aware of a problem posed by online nurseries such as G*rney, Spr*ng H*ll, etc. You can buy milkweed online (and probably in big box stores as well) listed as "food for butterflies". Customers have been complaining that their monarch caterpillar babies (yes, there are people who buy and raise them) die after eating the purchased plants. Even though they are said to not be sprayed with a poison, the suppliers the nurseries are getting the plants from apparently DO spray them. I would suggest taking a ride in the country when the pods are matured and collect seeds.

SKIN CANCER ?

I have seen some articles on milkweed sap used on skin cancer but haven't seen any mention of this on your site . Please give your opinion and comment on this .

milkweed and cancer

The Editors's picture

In the case of skin cancer medicine, the common name “milkweed” refers to the plant Euphorbia peplus, which is in a different plant family (Euphorbiaceae) from the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca (Apocynaceae). E. peplus is more closely related to the castor bean (Ricinus communis), and is also known as “petty spurge” or “radium weed.” The sap of E. peplus has been a traditional treatment for various skin lesions, including cancer. Preliminary research suggests that a component in the sap of E. peplus, called PEP005 (ingenol mebutate), can be effective in treating certain nonmelanoma skin cancers. Please note that the sap of this plant is toxic and can burn tissue: Keep it away from eyes and healthy skin and do not take internally. Consult with a doctor before administering.

Milkweed

We used to have "tons" of milkweed growing along the roadside and in the fields around our house when I was growing up. I remember seeing so many of the orange and black butterflies at that time, too, but it wasn't until many years later that I realized it was the Monarch that we were seeing and that they were in decline. We just took them so "for granted" when I was a kid. So now I have planted milkweed in our flower gardens and the plants have been multiplying each year. In the fall i take the seed pods and scatter the seeds in the surrounding wooded area behind our house. Hopefully that will increase the plants. A few Monarchs have visited during the summer much to our delight!! Hope more will find their way here, too.

Monarchs and Milkweed

Please research your statement that milkweed are the only plant that monarch caterpillars eat. I have had many many monarch caterpillars on another plant, not sure of scientific name but a common name is butterfly bush, with orange flowers.

Monarch Food

The Editors's picture

Monarch caterpillars feed on plants in the milkweed genus (Ascelpias), which includes Common Milkweed, as pictured above, and other types of milkweed. The plant in your garden is likely Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)!

Monarchs

I live in North CA and haven't seen a Monarch butterfly in many years. Any idea why?

why monarch butterflies are disappearing

The Editors's picture

Monarchs out West are faring worse than their eastern counterparts. For example: In the 1980s, 10 million monarchs spent the winter in coastal California. Today, there are barely 300,000. The cause isn’t clear but loss and modification of its habitat and pesticide use across the West, where monarchs breed, are likely culprits. There a lot of efforts to avoid extinction such as reducing pesticides and increasing butterfly plants. Bald eagles back from the brink of extinction by limiting use of DDT so it’s possible to make a difference.

Spark Catcher

Did you know that the semi moon shaped crescent the milkweed seeds grow on is the best spark catcher when using flint and steel to start a fire? So after you harvest the seeds save the crescents in a jar for starting fires. It's much better than the fluff. Crush it to provide more surface area to catch a spark. Then use the fluff in dry grass to hold the glowing ember and blow gently!

PROVEN FOR WARTS

I had a horse with warts on her face and it would be irritating when a bridle applied. I used milk weed sap and within a week the warts were all gone.

Growing milkweed

I grow milkweed on my property and sell the seeds. Even though I am in Arizona, I enjoy numerous monarch butterflies in the fall and have used them to teach conservation to children. Milkweed is indeed a magical plant.

who knew we could have so much fun with milkweed?!

I have plenty of milkweed growing along our road in Paris Ontario, Canada. I brought several plants to school today and we were all fascinated about what they had to offer. We found 8 snails, thought it was amazing to see the white sap drip out and bubble when we tried to open the pods. Then.... the seeds!!! Our Kindergarten students were even more excited to see them tightly folded together within each pod and then separate and fly all over the place, especially on our windy hot day. What a thrill!!!

Milkweed Fun

The Editors's picture

That sounds like it was a lovely experience for young and old! 

Childrens' (youth) education

Very useful information in identifying our surroundings. Captivated youth and adult attention equally.

Thank you for your support.

milkweed

I discovered two years ago that milkweed was the Monarch butterfly best friend. I use to cut it down. Now I let it grow and and this year there are more than twenty individual plants growing. I will be taking seeds to plant at our cottage to expand the milkweed.

Milkweed

Yes I get lots of milkweed in my yard. Kat

Milk weed seeds

we had a large garden of milkweed but it went away what can I do to try to replant are seed available?

Milkweed Seeds

The Editors's picture

Yes, you can find milkweed seeds for sale online from both nurseries and butterfly conservation societies. Also try contacting your local Cooperative Extension service, as they may be able to suggest a local seed source.

What ate it?

We've had what we thought was milkweed growing wild for decades (and Monarchs visiting) in the central Adirondacks. This year we arrived to find the tops bitten (cut or whatever) off all the plants. And no butterflies. Any one have any ideas?

Milkweed

I have let several plants keep growing on my property. I haven't noticed more than a couple Monarchs yet, but that doesn't mean they haven't laid some eggs..I hope so..I've always loved the plant anyway..

Deer like them at first

I have noticed the young deer eat flowers from milkweed. I think, after one experience, they may leave them alone in the future.

Seed thieves?

Someone thought they needed the seeds more than you?

Milkweed

Live in east meadow,long island have tons of milkweed monarchs lay eggs every year we raise and release the butterflies

Milkweed Plants

Our community garden is full of milkweed due to the scattered seeds from the breeze.I collect seeds for gift giving and rebirth of monarchs by planting seeds in the neighborhood.92102 zip code.

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